January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Small school systems provide new approach to Catholic education

Sarah Watson, principal of the consolidated St. Michael and St. Gabriel elementary schools in Indianapolis, helps kindergartner Mia Rodriguez with an assignment in teacher Lisa Zetzl’s class on Jan. 12 at the Indianapolis West Deanery school. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Sarah Watson, principal of the consolidated St. Michael and St. Gabriel elementary schools in Indianapolis, helps kindergartner Mia Rodriguez with an assignment in teacher Lisa Zetzl’s class on Jan. 12 at the Indianapolis West Deanery school. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

By Mary Ann Garber

Three small “school systems” in the archdiocese are enhancing the ways that the Church provides its ministry of Catholic education to students of all ages during this challenging economic time.

In 2009, St. Gabriel the Archangel School and St. Michael the Archangel School in Indianapolis were consolidated by the archdiocese to form the West Deanery Unified Catholic Schools Inc. with nearby Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School.

The merger of the elementary schools on the St. Michael Parish campus next to the deanery junior and senior high school enables the archdiocese to better serve the students from those adjacent parishes by sharing administrative and academic resources as well as governance by one board of directors.

This parish partnership helped to resolve some longstanding financial and enrollment concerns affecting both elementary schools.

Two other small school systems already in place in the archdiocese are achieving similar successes for parishes and families in east-central and southern Indiana.

Seton Catholic Schools in Richmond and Prince of Peace Schools in Madison also share a governance structure and a variety of resources with their elementary schools and high schools.

G. Joseph Peters, associate executive director of Catholic education for the archdiocese, said the St. Gabriel and St. Michael consolidation resulted from a 2009 study of the Indianapolis West Deanery schools approved by Archbishop [now emeritus] Daniel M. Buechlein as the best use of educational resources and facilities for the two parishes, which are only three miles apart.

“It’s a success story, but it wasn’t easy,” Peters said. “There were some struggles getting there. … Elementary enrollment is up by 27 students this year.”

Sarah Watson, principal of the consolidated elementary school, brings a unique perspective to her ministry.

She graduated from St. Michael School, returned to her parish years later as a youth minister then was appointed principal of St. Gabriel School, where she served for seven years and assisted with the transition duties for the merger.

“Both schools were performing well academically, but both suffered from declining enrollment,” Watson said. “This year, our [combined] enrollment is 280 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Our school serves both parish communities as well as a number of other church communities. … We are a very diverse school religiously and ethnically.”

Last July, with the assistance of Catholic School Management Inc., the board of directors of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School was reconfigured to include the elementary school.

“Because of the partnership with Cardinal Ritter High School, we are able to expand what we can offer to our students on a daily basis,” Watson said. “The academic possibilities that have opened up between the two schools really benefit the students and families.

“We have seventh-graders and

eighth-graders who take advanced language arts and mathematics classes at the junior high level at Cardinal Ritter,” she said. “Most of our eighth-graders will graduate at the end of the year with dual credits in language arts, composition, digital communication and honors algebra.”

The elementary school and Cardinal Ritter also share faculty members, she said, who teach classes at both schools.

“We provide an exemplary education for our students,” Watson said. “But this was not an easy process for the two parishes because it required sacrifices. We are grateful for their support. We also are grateful to the board and committee volunteers that worked through this partnership process for two years. We would not be here today without their help. We have come together, we are unified and we are blessed to have each other.”

Greg Perkins, Cardinal Ritter’s president and administrative officer of the West Deanery Unified Catholic Schools Inc., oversees the principals of both schools—Jo Hoy and Watson—who work together with Perkins as a team on administrative matters.

“I think the most important aspect of this is that it is a different approach to managing our Catholic schools,” Perkins said. “It is a different governance model. … It helps relieve the parishes of some administrative burdens because running a school is not easy. … It is a very practical, resourceful and efficient approach that allows for more central organization to focus on the needs.”

Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School students represent West Deanery parishioners from Indianapolis, Avon, Plainfield and Brownsburg.

In Richmond, Seton Catholic High School principal Rick Ruhl said collaborating on planning, curriculum and student life issues as a small school system has many benefits for the students at the high school and two elementary school campuses.

“We now have a single board of directors for governance of the entire Seton Catholic Schools system,” he said. “The exciting thing that we are finding in our unification as a preschool through grade 12 system is that we are approaching these issues in a much more systematic fashion.

“We consider ourselves to be a family, and we take advantage of opportunities to gather together more often than we have in the past,” Ruhl said. “It has strengthened the bonds between the elementary school and the high school.”

Three years ago, Seton Catholic Schools—Seton Catholic Jr./Sr. High School and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Elementary School—began a four-year strategic planning process with assistance from Catholic School Management Inc. and the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education to reconfigure the board, develop long-range goals and identify areas for possible growth as a school system.

A key to this reorganization and planning is a greatly expanded board committee structure that addresses the various planning areas.

“The support of the ministry of Catholic education by the good folks in the Richmond Catholic Community has been phenomenal,” Ruhl said. “What I’m most proud of is our exciting integration of new technology.

“Nine of our high school classrooms are equipped with interactive white boards,” he said. “These devices allow our teachers to have much more flexibility in their methodology and approaches to classroom teaching. Students in grades seven through 12 have Netbook computers that they carry with them throughout the day, use in every classroom then take home as well.”

In Madison, Philip Kahn, president of Prince of Peace Schools Inc., as well as an alumnus, said it is easy to operate as one school system and collaborate on educational programming because Pope John XXIII Elementary School and Father Michael Shawe Memorial High School are only 100 feet apart. The schools have operated with a single parish school commission for many years.

“Every month, we have an all-school Mass for the kindergarten through the 12th grade students,” Kahn said. “The community is also welcome to attend the all-school Masses, which is nice.”

High school students serve as mentors for elementary school students, he said, and occasionally help teach elementary classes.

“We promote a family environment,” Kahn said. “We tout Prince of Peace Schools as a small community within a small community. Madison has about 13,000 residents, and people take care of each other here.”

Sharing resources helps keep the cost of Catholic education affordable, he said. “We are always looking at how we can benefit from sharing resources, whether it is copy machines or assigning teachers to different roles at both schools. We work hard to provide a family atmosphere, safe environment and great Catholic education.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!